Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Play-In Game

Forget that the NCAA calls this the “opening round” game. The loser of the Tuesday night game between the Monmouth Hawks and the Hampton Pirates won’t get to experience what the winner and 63 other teams go through. Those teams get to join seven of their peers at a subregional site, in arenas packed with fans and media, and play before a network television audience.

God bless the people of Dayton, Ohio, which has hosted this game since the NCAA instituted it in 2001. Monmouth and Hampton will, I’m sure, get the best treatment their fans have to offer. Dayton is a great basketball town, and the Oregon District certainly a nice diversion, but it won’t have the same atmosphere or draw as the subregional sites. (Coincidentally, one of those sites this year is Dayton – though the winner of this game will travel to Philadelphia to meet Villanova.) The game is on cable, and ESPN doesn’t have a history of sending its top announcing tandems to the game.

A little history about this game: The NCAA added a 65th tournament team in 2001, when the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences were formed by the split of the old WAC. Rather than take away an at-large bid from a presumably more marquee school, they expanded the field to 65 and created this awkward arrangement in which all 65 teams technically qualify for the tournament but the two deemed the weakest have to play an elimination game.

The concept is OK, but the wrong two teams are in the game. Instead, the NCAA should have the last two at-large teams play their way in. First, it would have two more recognizable teams. Second, it would be fair to the kids from these smaller schools whose dream is just to make it to the NCAAs. They deserve to see what all the hype and hysteria is about. If Air Force, supposedly the last team into the field, wanted to complain about having to meet, say, Bradley in Dayton on Tuesday night, I’d have three letters for them: N-I-T. The Falcons should have Craig Littlepage’s picture emblazoned on their jerseys after making the field at all.

So while the rest of the college basketball world might forget about these two teams, I won’t. Here’s a quick capsule on each of them:

Hampton Pirates (16-15, champions of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference). Located in Hampton, Virginia.

This is the third NCAA appearance for the Pirates, who posted one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history, in terms of seeding. As the 15th seed in 2001, they shocked No. 2 Iowa State, 58-57, one of only four times a No. 15 has won a tournament game. The postgame scene of coach Steve Merfeld being lifted, spread-eagle, by one of his players is an image that defines how special it is when schools such as Hampton get to play the top teams. Merfeld has moved on to Evansville, and the Pirates are now coached by Bobby Collins. Their top scorer is forward Jaz Cowan (13.1 points per game), a transfer from George Washington. The Colonials might wish he was still there, given the injury to their own big man, Pops Mensah-Bonsu.

Monmouth Hawks (18-14, champions of the Northeast Conference). Located in West Long Branch, New Jersey.

Monmouth has an NCAA tournament history as well, though it isn’t as successful as Hampton’s. The Hawks last made the field in 2004, losing in the first round to Mississippi State. They also fell in their other two NCAA appearances, to Duke in 2001 and to Marquette in 1996. Monmouth is coached by one of its alumni, Dave Calloway, who has turned the program around in his nine years there. The Hawks won five games in his first full season, 1998-99, after winning four the previous year when Calloway took over in midseason as interim coach. They’ve now won 109 games in the past six years. Monmouth is led in scoring by two juniors, Dejan Delic (12.2 ppg) and Marques Alston (12.0 ppg), and also has one of the field’s tallest players, the aptly named John Bunch at 7-foot-2.

Other interesting facts about this game: The winner of the first play-in game was Northwestern State, which beat Winthrop. Both teams are now chic picks for upsets in the first round – with the Demons facing Iowa and the Eagles going against Tennessee. Northwestern State is also the only team to win this game after entering it with a winning record. Siena, UNC-Asheville, Florida A&M, and Oakland have won the last four play-in games after compiling below-.500 records.

Neither of these teams has a losing record, but I’ll follow the trend and go with the school with the worse record. The pick here is Hampton. And I’d pick them to beat Air Force, too.


Play-In Game History

2006: Monmouth vs. Hampton

2005: Oakland 79, Alabama A&M 69

2004: Florida A&M 72, Lehigh 57

2003: UNC-Asheville 92, Texas Southern 84

2002: Siena 81, Alcorn State 77

2001: Northwestern State 71, Winthrop 67


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